Unleash performance


Every company wants to improve margins, be more agile and generate higher levels of innovation — and they often spend a considerable amount of effort trying to get there. Improving business performance, however, is easier said than done. The executives we speak with bemoan their organization’s challenges such as lack of flexibility, poor employee engagement, and stagnant productivity. Is this feedback the entire story, or does something else account for the gap between intent and results?

Any productivity and performance discussion inevitably comes down to what the employee is doing and how does the organization enable their success. When we ask workers what frustrates them we get an earful. The first culprit is their long task list, which often limits focus and follow through on any one activity. Their second frustration is the need to adhere to corporate policies and practices that seem to be disconnected with their performance priorities and the firm’s strategic goals. Both these issues have a basis in two important but often unexplored areas.

Psychological barriers Individual frustration with their workload has some form of psychological underpinning. While many managers complain about being overloaded with responsibilities, very few are willing to jettison any of them. For one thing, they are hesitant to stop things because they don’t want to admit that they are doing low-value or unnecessary work. This is especially true in recessionary times or when firms are in cost-cutting mode. Second, some employees are workaholics who take pride in having a full plate. These individuals will take on more work even when they know it’s counter-productive for them or the company. Finally, many people fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy i.e. they are reluctant to quit something after they have invested so much time and reputation in it. Productivity strategies that fail to address these psychological considerations will likely fail.

Organizational dynamics Well-meaning, but onerous, corporate norms and practices can drag down operational performance and drive up hidden costs. Examples of these obligations include the need to regularly engage multiple stakeholders for input or buy-in even when they are not critical to an initiative’s outcome, or; the requirement to perform certain time-consuming, administrative tasks that generate more effort and cost than they were intended to save. These types of over-management can have unexpected consequences. For one, it creates an organizational paradox: companies regularly start new things — forms, committees, initiatives — but have a much harder time stopping ones that exist. The result is ever-increasing complexity. Furthermore, when managers over-react to problems by instituting new policies or processes, they can inadvertently reduce business performance by distracting people from their objectives, fragmenting their effort and slowing down operational tempo. Leaders need to carefully consider the long-term implications before adding or changing processes and practices.

The interplay of all of these factors drive organizational complexity, extend project lead times and foster operational inefficiency. Given the powerful institutional and psychological factors, how can you unshackle your organization?

Plan better

Leaders need to take into account their firm’s actual capabilities and capacity during their planning exercises. This allows them to better match their resources and skills with project and activity demands. Furthermore, using portfolio management methodologies can help pre-empt misaligned priorities and resource conflicts.

Tweak the performance management system

There is a strong correlation between what workers are measured on and how they behave. Many companies evaluate employee performance based on effort and number of tasks, not results or value. While effort should count for something, performance measurement systems must prioritize individual value creation on strategic or “lights on” activities that link directly to key goals and key performance indicators, not “busy work.”

Focus on strategic execution

As every company knows, execution is often the difference between a winning strategy and business failure. Looking at execution “strategically” and not as an afterthought can significantly improve project outcomes and reduce cost. For example, there should be clear visibility across the organization to what is being done, where and by whom with particular clarity and alignment as to “who owns what” decisions and interdependencies. All projects and practices should be regularly evaluated for relevance and efficient deployment. Finally, each project and committee should have a charter, which stipulates end-of-life dates so people understand things come to an end.

Address collectively

The best way to accelerate individual and initiative performance — given their psychological and cross-functional basis — is to employ a cross-functional team to analyze and tackle the root cause problems. This approach, though time-consuming, ensures issues become visible, collaboration is maximized and cross-organizational action is triggered.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc., web site.

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